Jacques Audiard’s Tamil-French movie Dheepan is a study in love and violence in equal measures, set against the backdrop of the lives of Tamil refugees who have fled from Sri Lanka to live in France.

Having recently won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, its Indian premiere was a source of much intrigue, and the performances of Antonythasan Jesuthasan (also known by the pseudonym he writes under, Shobasakthi) and Kalieaswari Srinivasan as Sivadhasan and Yalini respectively turned out to be the cornerstones of the powerful film.

We got a chance, over the course of MAMI, to catch up with the actors about their backgrounds and the evolution of their characters:

Antonythasan Jesuthasan (Left) with Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Extreme Right)

Antonythasan Jesuthasan (Left) with Kalieaswari Srinivasan (Extreme Right)

Could you both tell me a little bit about how you were approached for your roles in Dheepan, and what your immediate reactions were?

Shobasakthi: I did a film earlier called The Dead Sea and Kumaran Valavan, who was casting for it, was the one who recommended me for the Dheepan audition. I got selected, and I was really happy to be a part of it because it spoke about the Sri Lankan issue, which is very close to my heart.

Kali: I do theatre, so it was Kumaran Valavan — again — who referred me for the audition along with another person called Seema, who was working with Alliance Francaise. They didn’t know each other, as they were in Chennai and Pondicherry, so I ended up getting a double reference. After the audition, Jacques announced that he’d like to work with me for a week or two before finalising. So I went to Paris, and we had a lot of rehearsals before I was confirmed for the role. There was a lot going on then, a lot of creation as well as uncertainty surrounding the project at that stage — even when we started shooting, it took some time for it to sink in that I was actually playing this role.

What were the briefs you were given for your characters, and what were some of the challenges you both faced along the way?

Shobasakthi: In a way, everything was challenging, because I’m not a professional actor like Kali, she’s from a theatrical background. I was also not very comfortable with the language, I’d generally need a translator.

Having lived as a refugee for 22 years in France, how fluent are you in both Tamil and French?

Shobasakthi: I’m very good at functional French, so that I can go about my day-to-day activities, speak to people in offices and read the paper – that I can do. But in the film, the language was more nuanced and much deeper. There were also more technical parts of the language that I had to learn. When I landed up in France first, I was given an eight-month training in French, one that they give to refugees. With that training as well  20 years of working in French offices, I’ve been getting by on a day-to-day basis. That wasn’t always enough to communicate with the crew of Dheepan properly, though, which is why I had a translator on shoot with me. It was tough on some days.

Kali: The medium was different for me, as I generally do theatre. The languages, of course… I don’t know French at all, and Sri Lankan Tamil is very different from the Tamil that I speak. I felt like I was also an outsider when it came to the main theme — I know of the war, of course, but I’m not Sri Lankan, so I didn’t initially have any personal take on the character I was going to be playing. Working with Jacques (Audiard, Director) was also challenging on some days. We worked on the backstory together, and had almost a month of rehearsals before actually starting shoot. We worked with an acting coach as well, in the absence of Jacques.

Shobasakthi in a still from Dheepan

Shobasakthi in a still from Dheepan

To Kali: I really liked your performance, especially your reaction to the violence at the end — you really managed to portray that it was something that reminded the character of the violence back home in Sri Lanka. How did you go about that scene in particular, and what were the inputs you got from the director?

If that is what has come across, then I’m very, very happy and thankful that it did, because what you said right now is exactly what was in my mind. Especially in this one scene, where she’s looking at Brahim beating everybody up and it just brings everything back to her. She can’t trust anybody, it seems like everything is the same on this side of the world as well, in terms of the violence we’re capable of.

Without over-intellectualising things, that scene was a combination of everything — it was a process where we had a chance to prepare for our characters; we were never put on a spot. The character evolved even during the shooting, and there was a guided sort of freedom which gave us direction. After a while, you die and surrender to the character… you let your ego die, and then things happen naturally, as they would with the character.

To Shobasakthi: As a former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam child soldier who has been staying in France as a refugee for over two decades, how did your personal experience inform your performance? Also tell us a little bit about your work as a respected Tamil writer.

I joined the LTTE as a child soldier when I was 14, and left four years later. I left the movement altogether, because it was becoming increasingly undemocratic… I was in prison for a while after that, and when I got out, I wasn’t very interested in continuing in the movement. I wanted to flee the country. I left Sri Lanka at 19, and spent about five years trying to travel and enter France. I lived in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Laos when I was on the run.

As a writer, I’ve been writing since my childhood. Even in LTTE, I was not handling guns and ammunition, I was more into the cultural aspect of it, such as writing theatre. I was more a cultural fighter. Today, I’ve written over 20 volumes.

How did you fund your travels and handle all the logistics of such extensive travels?

Shobasakthi: I didn’t initially have enough money to bring to France when I left Sri Lanka, so I went to Hong Kong first, which I didn’t need a Visa to enter with a Sri Lankan passport. I also spent 3 years in Thailand, where I registered myself as a refugee at the UN Embassy. After that, I tried many times to enter Europe — once, even going as far as Czechoslovakia, but I wasn’t allowed to enter, so I turned back to Thailand for a while. I reached France eventually, with a little help from my brother in Germany, who had escaped earlier.

Kali in a still from Dheepan

Kali in a still from Dheepan

And did Audiard know about your life so far and your background at the time of casting you for the role?

Shobasakthi: He didn’t know until we actually started shooting.

To Kali: I found your character very interesting in how she treats attraction in her life. She’s not married, but she’s living with a man and a child, pretending to be his wife, and finding herself attracted to him. At the same time, there’s an ambivalence shown between her relationship with Brahim’s character, without ‘villainising’ her in a way that many Indian films do.

What is your understanding of that equation?

It is very interesting, because Jacques did not want the relationship between the two to be defined. Initially, we tried to see if they could work as friends, or a sibling-like relationship, or as lovers. We went through all those equations, and finally settled on leaving it undefined. There’s a beautiful relationship that they share, but you cannot possibly box it. He’s the first man she’s coming across, whom she’s actually meeting and he’s treating her like a lady. The woman in her actually blooms around him; they talk and spend some time together…

Jacques wanted it to be as delicate and complicated as it could be.

What you said about giving a female character who’s having feelings for someone unexpectedly is also true… it’s often portrayed as something that is ‘wrong’ in Indian cinema, which is strange because human relationships are so fluid.

Till now, if you ask me what Yalini’s relationship with Brahim is, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. This one is all Jacques.

To Shobasakthi: The scene where your character is drinking whiskey and singing, it seems like a turning point in the film. Can you tell us a little bit about how it was shot?

You should see me when I’m drinking. (everyone laughs)

How they conceived the scene was basically an expression of catharsis for the character — he’s alone, sad and drinking. He’s singing the song for himself, he’s reflecting and letting off steam. The song previously selected for this scene was from the music director, but it was a jumpy tune and I didn’t feel very comfortable performing that. The scene as it turned out, is actually just me, generally, when I’m drunk or when I’m jamming with everyone with a drink — which is always. I thought that would be more natural.

Still from the film

Still from the film

While you’ll were interpreting your characters – this is a love story at its heart, but it’s got several layers of violence about it. How did you interpret these different aspects?

Kali: I feel it was all more than different layers, it was all very interconnected. There’s violence not just around them and in them, there’s different layers and expressions of violence, even in their own relationships amongst the three of the supposed family members. It cannot be broken down, it just had to be as complex as how it is in real life.

Shobasakthi: I find that love is more violent than violence, and I just gave in to that dichotomy. Being a creative person myself, I just tried to recreate Jacques’ vision of how Dheepan was and how he reacted to situations, how he expresses love and anger.

Were there any references for your characters that Jacques gave you?

Kali: No, not at all. He wanted us to create the character from scratch, even in our rehearsals. He gave me the time and freedom to recreate her in flesh and blood, right from the way she walked. There was no set pattern that we had to mould ourselves to, there was a very organic evolution of the character. There were a lot of these that even happened on shoot, we would have some 10-15 takes with different intensities and emotion. We’re not even talking about camera angles here. I think there could be even three of four different versions of the film, that’s how varied our takes were.

What’s the plan next for Dheepan, and can we look forward to a theatre release in India?

Kali: It’s premiering at the Colombo Film Festival on the 6th, and it’s definitely going to be doing the rounds in the Indian film festivals. After Mumbai, it’s going to be screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, and also in Chennai. We’d love to do a commercial release, but that still remains to be seen.